The narrator, a middle-aged British reporter named Thomas Fowler, is in his apartment in 1950s Saigon, waiting for a younger American man named Alden Pyle, who is two hours late. It is odd for Pyle, a meticulous and punctual man, to be late without giving notice. Anxious, Fowler goes down to the street, where he sees a young Vietnamese woman named Phuong waiting on Fowler’s doorstep. “Phuong” means Phoenix in Vietnamese, but Fowler comments that “nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from its ashes.” Phuong used to wait in that same place at the same time for Fowler to come home when Phuong and Fowler were in a relationship, but now Phuong is waiting for Pyle. Phuong left Fowler for Pyle some time ago. Though Fowler is bitter about it, he avoids making an ironic reference to the circumstances of their relationship, and he invites her to wait for Pyle with him in his apartment.
The three main characters’ relationships mirror the relationships between countries: Fowler, representing Europe, is losing control over Phuong, representing Vietnam, whereas Pyle, representing America, is starting a new relationship with her. While Fowler initially seems to be a loyal friend—waiting over two hours for Pyle—his feelings toward Phuong and later narration show that he would readily “betray” his friend by sleeping with Phuong—as Pyle betrayed him earlier by “stealing” Phuong for himself. Fowler’s musings on Phuong’s name expose his cynical views about death, but also associate Phuong with a beacon of hope that Fowler’s relationship with her, now “dead,” may be rekindled.
Phuong and Fowler go up to Fowler’s apartment. Phuong speaks in simple French, noticing that Fowler seems troubled by Pyle’s absence. Phuong says Pyle is very fond of Fowler, but Fowler responds that she should “thank him for nothing.” Fowler looks at Phuong as she prepares tea and closes his eyes, trying to remember how it felt when they were together.
Phuong’s simple French shows how the French colonial presence has not melded harmoniously with Vietnamese culture. Fowler misses his relationship with Phuong and is angry with Pyle, even though Pyle apparently holds no ill feelings toward Fowler.
Phuong tries to comfort Fowler by saying Pyle will be there soon. Fowler wonders what Pyle and Phuong talk about together and remembers how Pyle likes to talk at length about the Far East and how the United States is helping instill democracy around the world. Phuong, however, knows very little about world history or politics, though she is obsessed with the British royal family. Fowler asks Phuong in English if Pyle is in love with her, but Phuong laughs and asks, “In love?” Pyle supposes Phuong may not understand what that means.
Pyle’s obsession with topics like the Far East and Democracy reveals his interest in the United States playing an expanding role in Vietnam. However, these issues mean nothing to Phuong, who remains a mystery, apparently only focusing on the allure of British royalty. Phuong’s conception of love is never explained, but her actions seem to follow the path of the most loyal and practical companionship.
Phuong begins the laborious task of preparing an opium pipe for Fowler to smoke. According to Vietnamese superstition, a lover who smoked opium would always return, “even from France.” Fowler suggests Phuong should get Pyle to start smoking. Smoking opium also may damage sexual capacity, but according to Fowler, a Vietnamese woman would rather have a faithful lover than a potent one. Fowler is proud of his two-foot-long bamboo pipe and likes opium’s unique smell. He becomes less tense when he inhales and his concerns about Pyle’s whereabouts begin to fade away.
The opium allows Fowler to disengage from his concerns about death and love. Opium is said to make for a loyal lover, and this superstition suggests that opium somehow creates an intercontinental love connection (or addiction) between French men and Vietnamese women. Fowler’s opium use suggests that he is also “hooked” on his relationship with Phuong, and has merely replaced one addiction with another.
Fowler smokes a second pipe of opium and tells Phuong that when she left him for Pyle, he fell back into heavy opium use. Fowler suggests Phuong should not live with Pyle if Pyle doesn’t smoke, but she replies that Pyle is going to marry her. Fowler asks if Phuong would stay with Fowler that night if Pyle does not show up, but she avoids the question and asks where Pyle is. Fowler says he wouldn’t know. He asks for a third pipe, which Phuong prepares.
When Fowler asks if Phuong would sleep with him, Phuong looks to the practical issue of where Pyle is instead of answering yes or no. She ultimately ends up spending the night with Fowler, though, revealing an apparent lack of emotional attachment to either man. Phuong acts and is treated almost like a servant, despite Fowler’s “love” for her.
There is a knock at the door, but it is not Pyle. It is a Vietnamese policeman, who tells Fowler in heavily accented French that he is needed at the French Sureté, the police station. Fowler thinks about the extreme power that the police exert in Vietnam. He tells the policeman he will go to the station, but only if the officer pays for his trishaw, a three-wheeled bicycle cab, so Fowler can avoid the indignity of walking.
The distortion of language again points to the imperfect relationship between the French colonizers and the Vietnamese. The French police exert great power in their colony, which suggests a less democratic system than what Pyle would like to impose in Vietnam. Fowler’s concern about dignity again indicates a kind of colonialist mindset, in which the Europeans see it as important to set themselves apart from the Vietnamese.
Not long after, Fowler and Phuong arrive at the police office. Fowler is still high on opium. The French officer questioning them is named Vigot, a polite man whom Fowler has met before. Vigot asks Phuong how long she has lived with Pyle and says the situation is serious. Vigot says Fowler seems like Pyle’s friend, and Fowler agrees. When Vigot asks Fowler about Phuong, Fowler seems defensive and says he has no reason not to be friends with Pyle because of Phuong.
Vigot is one of the French officers in charge of the powerful police force, and he acts with the refined politeness of the European upper-middle class. Fowler agrees that Pyle is his friend, but his defensive response reveals that he does have a reason not to like Pyle, and that reason is (as far as we know) his relationship with Phuong.
Fowler describes Pyle as a “quiet American” employed by the Economic Aid Mission. Fowler does not tell Vigot how he and Pyle met, but he does describe it in the narration, jumping back into a past scene, where a young and eager Pyle introduces himself at a bar, his innocent face appearing to Fowler to be “incapable of harm.” With serious courtesy and youthful excitement, Pyle asks if a noise was a nearby grenade, but Fowler, used to hearing about grenade casualties in the paper, calmly guesses the sound was a car backfiring, which disappoints Pyle. Fowler remembers feeling like he wanted to tease Pyle because of his innocence. In the present time—at the French police station’s interrogation room with Vigot and Phuong—Fowler guesses that Pyle is dead, which Vigot confirms. The opium makes Pyle’s death less meaningful to Fowler.
Fowler contrasts Pyle’s youthful innocence with Fowler’s own more reserved and weary attitude. Pyle is even excited by the prospect of grenades, symbols of the violence of war, whereas Fowler finds nothing exciting about them. Pyle’s youth and innocence versus Fowler’s age and experience also mirrors America’s experience in Vietnam versus Europe’s, as America is only now entering what will become a long and wearying war in Vietnam. The news of Pyle’s death is unsurprising to Fowler, in part because of the emotion-deadening opium—but also because of Fowler’s pessimistic worldview, and other reasons we will learn later.
Suspicious of Fowler, Vigot asks him how he knew Pyle was dead. Fowler claims he’s not guilty of murdering Pyle, but the narration suggests that the opium is suppressing some feelings of guilt. With Phuong still in the room but silent, Vigot questions Fowler about his whereabouts earlier in the night, around the time Fowler was waiting in his apartment at the beginning of the novel. Fowler describes a tranquil night of dinner by himself and then a few drinks around the city. Vigot reveals Pyle was found in the water under a bridge near where Fowler had dinner by himself.
Even though Fowler claims not to be an active participant in Pyle’s death, Fowler’s feelings of guilt reveal that he is perhaps not as impartial as he says he is. Vigot’s suspicions of Fowler call into question Fowler’s loyalty to his friend, if Pyle can even be considered Fowler’s friend. Their relationship is obviously complicated by Phuong, who remains in the room but who is hardly mentioned, a silent reminder of the way that she (like Vietnam itself) is a kind of object the two men (like America and Europe) fight over.
Vigot suggests Pyle did a lot of harm, but is unclear about why. Fowler sarcastically retorts, “God save us always from the innocent and the good,” calling Pyle good “in his own way.” Vigot would not understand, Fowler tells him, because he is Roman Catholic, and not a “damned Yankee” like Pyle. Vigot leaves Phuong in the interrogation office and brings Fowler to the morgue to identify the body. Fowler assumes Vigot is bringing him because he wants Fowler to feel some sense of guilt at seeing the body, which he calls an old French police technique. Fowler tells himself he is innocent and casually identifies the body as Pyle.
Vigot’s suggestion that Pyle did a lot of harm points to the mystery surrounding Pyle’s role as an American in Vietnam. Fowler also emphasizes the differences between the Americans and the French in terms of religion, with the term “damned Yankee” used in conjunction with other descriptions of Pyle—calling him someone who is at once innocent and capable of doing bad things with good intentions. Yet Fowler does defend Pyle’s actions, showing the more positive side of their complicated relationship.
After meeting with Vigot, Fowler and Phuong walk back to his apartment. Dwelling on thoughts about death, Fowler is no longer concerned with the indignity of walking. Fowler thinks about sending a story to his paper about Pyle’s death, but knows he would not be able to reveal the true nature of Pyle’s job, in which Pyle was responsible for at least fifty deaths. Fowler finally reveals to Phuong in French that Pyle is dead. She reacts calmly and makes more opium for Fowler. She stays with him that night, and he wakes up to find his hand in a familiar place, resting between her legs. He wonders to himself, “Am I the only one who really cared for Pyle?”
For Fowler, death erases any vain sense of dignity that he had before hearing that Pyle died, so he does not avoid walking as he did earlier. Phuong barely reacts to the news about Pyle’s death, and instead loyally returns to Fowler’s side in bed. The ease with which she does so suggests a lack of emotional attachment. Fowler’s thought that he was the only one who cared for Pyle is complicated by the fact that he is benefiting so obviously from Pyle’s death (by sleeping with Phuong), and by even seeming to blame Phuong for betraying Pyle. The way Fowler’s hand is on her even in sleep again emphasizes Phuong as a kind of possession.